Genocide, Redemption and a Shoebox Gift that Changed a Boy’s Life
As Alex Nsengimana knelt on the cool, tiled floor of Kigali prison, he faced a stark moment of truth. Could he offer forgiveness to the man who had once brutally killed members of his family?
His thoughts returned to the nightmare he had faced 19 years before. Even though he was just five years old on 6 April 1994, Alex would never forget the morning when the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. The president’s assassination sparked a wave of violence that consumed Rwanda, and shocked the rest of the world.
Alex never knew his father, and his mother died of AIDS-related illness when he was aged four. When the genocide struck, Alex’s remaining family were among the first Tutsi victims to be targeted, when Hutu militia stormed their house one afternoon. Alex, Lillian, and their brother, Fils, watched through a window in horror while their grandmother was tortured and killed.
Several days later a group of men with guns came looking for his uncle, Karara. They shot him twice, and then beat Karara with a stick until he died. Alex recalls seeing his uncle’s pleading eyes looking into the faces of his killers. ‘What they did haunted me for many, many years,’ Alex said. The remaining family were forced to flee, and spent nearly two months crossing the hills around Kigali. At one point, bullets whizzed just above Alex’s head.
After the Rwandan Patriotic Front forces drove the Hutu militia out of Kigali, they returned home, but Alex wasn’t able to enjoy the security for long. His aunt and uncle fell ill, and Alex and Fils were sent to a nearby orphanage.
‘Nights at the orphanage were ﬁlled with the cries of children – hundreds of them, all lost and alone. Children like me, who had witnessed terrible things happening to their family and friends. After the genocide, I almost began to believe that God did not exist. I wondered, “If there’s a God who cares for his people, why would he let this happen?”’
But it was here that Alex’s journey to forgive the man who killed his uncle began. It was sparked by a simple shoebox he received through Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a campaign run by the charity Samaritan’s Purse.
One day, in 1995, all of the children at Alex’s orphanage were asked to line up outside. Excitement buzzed like electricity in the air as they were each handed a colourfully wrapped shoebox. Alex recalls the moment well.
‘We ripped open the boxes to find things we could hardly dream of owning! These amazing gifts reminded us that someone cared for us. With that, a small flame of hope was ignited in my heart.’
Alex can still picture his shoebox, along with many of its contents. Small, multi-coloured sweets, a comb, and his favourite: a red and white striped stick shaped like a ‘J’ that introduced him to the unexpected flavour of peppermint.
Troubled by memories of the conflict, Alex held onto the hope that his shoebox gift had stirred, until in 1997 he was chosen to tour the United States and Canada with the African Children’s Choir. Along with his brother Fils, and other children from his orphanage, he went to Uganda to learn English before the tour began. They also learned Bible stories, and Alex read Jeremiah 29:11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’ (ESV). He began to believe God had a plan for his life too, and made the decision to follow Jesus before returning to the orphanage in Kigali.
Three years later, he found an address he remembered had been given to him by a family in Winona, Minnesota. He sent the family an email. A woman named Ellen replied, and the pair kept in touch until Ellen offered to help sponsor Alex, Fils, and two other boys to go to high school in Minnesota. In September 2003, Alex joined his new family.
His healing process came full circle later when he returned to Rwanda to deliver shoebox gifts through Operation Christmas Child at the orphanage where he used to live. Being back in his homeland, Alex realised that to be truly free he had to forgive the men who killed his family. He gained permission to enter Kigali’s largest prison and visit the man who had killed his uncle and caused such pain to him and his family. For years Alex had dreamt about this moment.
As the prisoner sat before him he said, ‘I am Alex Nsengimana. My uncle was Karara. Would you please tell me why my uncle was killed?’
The prisoner replied, ‘A group of militia came. They were looking for Karara. I went with them … we killed him and looted the house. After, we didn’t bother to bury him; we left him outside his house. We went to look for two others, who we also killed.’
Alex took a deep breath and replied: ‘I’m not here to accuse you, though you wronged me, but I’m here to do something else.’ The next words caught in his throat as he began to cry. ‘I am here because I saw how God’s power works in forgiveness. I received that power. I really want to forgive you so you have peace and you also repent of everything. I want you to know that even after all the things you did, all the people you killed and hurt, God wants you to come back to him.’
As Alex placed a hand on his back and prayed, the prisoner said, ‘I don’t know what came over us. We killed everybody. Please forgive us. When I think of what I did, I always get sick.’
Later, as Alex left the prison, he felt like a great burden had been lifted off his chest. As painful as it once was, he was left with a feeling of peace, and a resolve to spend his life sharing with others how they can receive peace and forgiveness. He hopes to return to Rwanda one day to build a church on the land where his grandmother’s house stood.
Last year 511,200 shoeboxes were generously packed people all over the UK. This year many other boys and girls need a lifeline like Alex’s.
The gift of a shoebox to a child in need does more than put a smile on their face; it can be the first step towards changing their life. Thanks to links with churches around the world, shoeboxes given through Operation Christmas Child are able to find those who need them most, even in the hardest to reach areas, such as Rwanda, and across the Middle East.
Sending a shoebox gift couldn’t be easier and it makes a great activity for ‘Dads and Lads’, or even a men’s group.
It could be your gift that changes a child like Alex’s life. Can you pack the gift that children in hard situations so desperately need? Whether you choose and send your own gifts online, (if shopping is not your thing!) or organise something a little bigger like a group packing event, you can find easy step by step guides at